Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was greeted warmly at an Arab summit on Friday, receiving an embrace from Saudi Arabia’s crown prince at a gathering of leaders who had previously avoided him, in a policy change condemned by the United States and other Western nations.
As the conference began in Jeddah, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman shook hands with a grinning Assad, putting an end to animosity toward a leader who relied on Shi’ite Iran and Russia to defeat his opponents in Syria’s civil war.
The summit showcased redoubled Saudi efforts to exercise sway on the global stage, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in attendance and Crown Prince Mohammed restating Riyadh’s readiness to mediate in the war with Russia.
Oil powerhouse Saudi Arabia, once heavily influenced by the United States, has taken the diplomatic lead in the Arab world in the past year, re-establishing ties with Iran, welcoming Syria back to the fold, and mediating in the Sudan conflict.
With many Arab states hoping Assad will now take steps to distance Syria from Shi’ite Iran, Assad said the country’s “past, present, and future is Arabism”, but without mentioning Tehran – for decades a close Syrian ally.
In an apparent swipe at Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, who has backed Syrian rebels and sent Turkish forces into northern Syria, Assad noted the “danger of expansionist Ottoman thought”, describing it as influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood – an Islamist group seen as a foe by Damascus and many other Arab states.
Crown Prince Mohammed said he hoped Syria’s “return to the Arab League leads to the end of its crisis,” 12 years after Arab states suspended Syria as it descended into a civil war that has killed more than 350,000 people.
Saudi Arabia would “not allow our region to turn into a field of conflicts”, he said, saying the page had been turned on “painful years of struggle”.
Washington has objected to any steps towards normalization with Assad, saying there must first be progress towards a political solution to the conflict.
“We understand the point of view of the United States and our partners in the West, but addressing the ongoing challenges requires a new approach and that will not come without dialogue,” Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud told a news conference.
“We will dialogue with our partners in Europe and the United States to address the sources of their worry.”
“The Americans are dismayed. We (Gulf states) are people living in this region, we’re trying to solve our problems as much as we can with the tools available to us in our hands,” said a Gulf source close to government circles.
A Gulf analyst told Reuters that Syria risked becoming a subsidiary of Iran, and asked: “Do we want Syria to be less Arab and more Iranian, or … to come back to the Arab fold?”
Having welcomed back Assad, Arab states also want him to curb a flourishing Syrian trade in narcotics, which are produced in Syria and smuggled across the region.